Forget defense cuts and tax hikes. If Congress doesn’t act before Jan. 1, the price of milk will skyrocket, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The federal government guarantees a minimum price for dairy under the Farm Bill, a bundle of food regulations including food stamps, crop subsidies, insurance, rural development, research and land conservation passed by Congress every five years. But since the 2008 Farm Bill expired September 30, and with Washington deadlocked on a temporary resolution, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to revert to a 1949 law that would double the guaranteed rate for dairy products, leaving retailers with higher costs to pass onto consumers.
Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Wednesday that Congress won’t consider a new Farm Bill until Feb. 27. “The uncertainty of not knowing what the policies are going to be will create difficulties,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said at an event sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We need a Farm Bill and we need it now.”
Even without a new Farm Bill by Jan. 1, Congress could deal with dairy prices separately. But Peterson and other members of the Agriculture Committee would prefer to have the whole Farm Bill included in the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations. “I’ll guarantee you, you bring a [dairy price] extension up on this floor, it has no chance of passing,” Peterson says.
The full Farm Bill’s chance of passing before the New Year isn’t much better. “We can’t drop a Farm Bill in the middle of whatever is negotiated,” an aide to Republican House Speaker John Boehner told POLITICO. “A 1,000-page bill on top of whatever is negotiated will just make our vote situation harder.”
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, argues that the Farm Bill should be part of deficit reduction negotiations because it cuts food stamps, crop insurance, conservation and farmer subsidies from the current law. “The Farm Bill is the only bipartisan deficit reduction bill that passed the Senate this year. It’s only natural it should be part of a larger deficit reduction agreement,” Stabenow told the New York Times.
The Senate passed a Farm Bill in June and the House Agriculture Committee passed its own version a month later. Both reduce the deficit relative to current law, the Senate’s plan by nearly $24 billion and the House’s by $35 billion. The Senate’s Farm Bill spends $969 billion over ten years, and cuts around $4.5 billion to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which distributes food stamps and accounts for roughly 80% of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget. The House would cut over $16 billion from SNAP.
House Republicans Wednesday added cuts to SNAP to their latest deficit reduction package, known as Boehner’s “Plan B.” But that bill is presumed dead on arrival in the Senate. Until the two parties can agree on funding for the food stamp program, neither the fiscal cliff or the Farm Bill showdown can be resolved.
Peterson and Rep. Frank Lucas, the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, met with Senator Stabenow on Wednesday to plan a strategy to pass the Farm Bill. When he emerged from the meeting, a gaggle of reporters swarmed Peterson to ask what Congress was doing to prevent milk prices from doubling. His response: “Nothing.”